Choosing a viewpoint character can take a little thought, but some writers don't invest much time in the decision. They go with whatever seems right and sometimes that is enough, but here are a few thoughts that can be used either to decide on a viewpoint character or to uncover hidden problems that may exist with the choice.
The viewpoint character is the one (or more) character that becomes our window into the world. Obviously, this only applies to narratives with a limited narrator. It might be surprising what can change in a story when the story is told from the viewpoint (not to mention voice and opinions) of another person.
A well-chosen viewpoint character can offer insight and opinion on the world, whether that world is real or imaginary. A bland choice will live in the world, but have no thoughts about the world. Kind of ironic to see so much thought put into building a world, with no one giving that world much thought from within it. A good choice will not just see and describe the setting, but will let us know how they feel about what they see too. The same applies to people and events too.
Somewhat related to insight because it can offer an interesting and engaging portal into the world, voice can be tricky for many authors. I'm referring specifically to the character's voice. In several narrative modes, the character's voice bleeds through and colors the narration even outside of dialogue. Chuck Wendig's Blue Blazes is a good example of this. The story is third-person-limited, but the narrator sounds much like the main character due to the closeness of the narrative distance.
A viewpoint character may have secrets and information the writer wants to unveil. On the other hand, another character may have secrets and internal thoughts the writer wants to leave alone. I think Sherlock Holmes is a good example of this. Watson has opinions and his own interior, but Sherlock is left a little mysterious through the stories, and I think that makes the character much stronger. It is because his thoughts and decisions aren't laid out for us that we're so fascinated with understanding his mind.
Sympathy While sympathy is typically an attribute best left for a focal or main character rather than a viewpoint character, stories where the main character is unsympathetic for a good portion of the story might call for a viewpoint character that can draw sympathy. It can also be a good reason to make the main character a viewpoint character. The reader might need a better view of the character's interior (if one is offered) to fully sympathize with the character.
As fun and exciting as Guardians of the Galaxy might be, it pulls some punches in terms of arc. Perhaps this is an effect of juggling too many characters, conference-room screenwriting, or the editing room floor. Whatever the reason, we have:
A main character that changes from being concerned about reputation and money to being concerned about a girl (not a big stretch) to self-sacrifice, without much to inform the arc along the way. The self-sacrifice is weak, too. Without giving away spoilers—he was about to die anyway.
Groot has a heart from the beginning and still has a heart at the end. He's a lovable character, but he doesn't change.
Gamora shows vulnerability and desire to be free that informs her goals quite well, but even though she struggles to save her enemy in a critical moment, she is much the same at the end as she was—just free from her father now.
Rocket the raccoon eventually gives in and does something warm and fuzzy, though I couldn't say exactly what events led to that change. Drax admits to having friends and sets his revenge goal on a lesser tier, and I think Rocket's arc is much like this. He isn't choosing self-sacrifice as much as he is choosing to stay with his friends. Still, in the cases of both Drax and Rocket, the arcs felt a little thin and underdeveloped to me, though still present.
But what do we want from a movie like this? It's meant to be fun, right?
Hell yes it is fun. And maybe some stories can be merely fun with no heart to them, but Guardians doesn't fall into this category because of the simple reason that it tries to have heart, but really doesn't. It sets things up. Rocket doesn’t feel accepted; Gamora only wants to be free of her father; Drax doesn't need anyone's help, he only needs revenge; etc. All of these things set my expectations, which left me feeling unsatisfied by the end despite the excitement.
Perhaps it all just sets up the expected sequels.
I think the biggest question, for me, when creating a scene is one of evaluation. How do I know if I'm filling my outline with useful scenes or junk? In the past, the old "write it and see" test worked well enough. But that a waste of time! There has to be a better way, right?
I've found a few things that help me do that quicker. This list is still under construction for now, but this is what I have so far.
Conflict and Stakes
I list both conflict and stakes because it's possible to have conflict without stakes, and that isn't too interesting. Some will say that each scene must have conflict, but that's a complex notion, more complex than it might seem at first. A scene may carry conflict from a plot point forward, or it may be building towards—promising—conflict in the future. Still, if a scene has neither conflict nor stakes, something is off.
Relevance and Focus
Lajos Egri talked about a dramatic premise. Others have offered variations on a logline or a thesis. There's a core to the story. If not, there's a danger of meandering and slogging. A scene should fit into the scope of that core idea that defines the story, whatever name you call it.
Questions and Curiosity
I hate a story that's so lousy that I just want it gone, except it's left me just curious enough about one or two things that I want to know how it ends too. It's a chore to read, so I skim pages looking for a few answers. True story—I've Googled books before, looking for a summary so I could stop reading.
It's a good lesson, though. Narrative questions keep the reader coming back. Combine that with strong prose and engaging scene construction and you've got a winner. A scene should be viewed as a landscape of questions and answers. How soon are questions posed? Which questions are answered? What is yet to be answered—perhaps an answer is teased?
And pondering the questions might show you some flaws in the scene. "Why is Alex acting like this" might be the question you want to leave hanging for a few scenes, or it might be killing your story.
An online friend told me recently that a scene should look like a dinosaur, skinny at both ends and fat with questions in the middle. (Never accused him of being brilliant with the metaphors.) But a scene that asks no questions and answers no questions falls back on the relevance and focus question.
Originality and Surprise The whole scene might surprise a reader, or just a single moment. This might seem contrary, but a good story can still be told in boring and predictable ways. Look for ways to surprise the reader. Keep them guessing, whether it's the setting, or the choice of POV or part of the narrative mode, or a line of dialogue, or some other detail.
Now, there's a host of other things I could explore, like imagery and theme, or characters, or dialogue, or description, or POV choices and so forth, but for me Stakes, Focus, and Originality are the keys to evaluating a scene down to a basic Red Light/Green Light purpose. Those other things are important decisions, but don't lend themselves to "is it working?" as well.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.